Dawn. July 5th, 1986. The bus carrying my brother and I took off from Sallynoggin Church and our odyssey to Slane Castle to see the mighty Queen began. On the bus, we met a guy who went to our school. He’d formed a band and we chatted with him for a while.
Eventually, we left the outskirts of Dublin and entered the verdant area of County Meath where Slane Castle is located. The bus stopped, we got out and began the walk to the castle grounds. Along the route, we saw many people selling Queen paraphernalia. You can see more about some of the counterfeit material on sale on the day in this clip.
The official merchandise was on sale inside the grounds. A t-shirt cost nearly twice the price of the concert ticket if I remember correctly. Crazy money.
The first big surprise of the day was that Slane is a natural bowl shape and wasn’t like a flat stadium venue (during Radio Ga Ga, I looked back to see this vast forest of clapping hands going up onto the hill in the sunset. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since)
We made our way downhill towards the stage and found a good spot about three-quarters of the way up the field (we were by the right spotlight tower at the front in this picture).
I saw a guy in front of me wearing an army jacket with the four heads from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody video and Queen II album cover on the back of it. I got a flashback to the time Bo Rhap was number one in ’75. I remember asking my dad why that video was on at the end of the show every week. He told me it was because it was the best selling song of the week. It struck me how long their music had been in my life.
The show kicked off with long-forgotten Irish group, The Fountainhead. They started with their song The Rhythm Method and the sound system boomed into life and echoed in my chest like a fist pounding on it. It took a bit of getting used to. The rain started coming down and The Fountainhead were gone. A chap in front of us lay unconscious in the muddy grass with rain beating down on his face. I’ve often wondered what happened to him in the years since.
American girl group The Bangles appeared and the drunken male crowd leered into life, hurling anything they could lay their hands on at them (It was easily the roughest crowd I’ve ever been a part of at any show since.) They did their hit Manic Monday and another song called Going Down To Liverpool, which featured the line: “Where you goin’ with that UB40 in your hand?” Their blonde drummer sang that song and, upon seeing that a red shoe had landed on the stage, she rewrote the line so it went “where you goin’ with that UB40 in your FOOT?!” Someone hurled a 2-litre bottle of orange at them and it went up over their heads and spilled its sticky contents all over their bass player. They were already standing at the back of the stage to avoid electrocution by the rain. Their set finished, The Bangles left the stage. 20 years later, Bangles singer Susanna Hoffs was asked what she thought of their brief Slane slot. “It was like Raging Bull,” she said, “like a Scorsese movie.” I concur.
We waited for the next act to take the stage. Another drunk guy in front of us was groping any female that went past as we ate some sandwiches from our cooler bag. Surreal wasn’t the word for it.
Chris Rea took to the stage and, to everyone’s surprise, the crowd calmed down and gave Chris a really warm reception. One journalist remarked that Chris Rea may have accounted for a sizable chunk of the ticket sales. I just sang along as I knew his songs and wanted to have a good time and I think most people were like that. I Can Hear Your Heart Beat was a particular crowd favourite with everyone singing loudly and clapping as the sun came out at last. Chris left the stage to rapturous applause. When it died down, we all knew it was time for Queen to rock us all.
Half an hour went past. It felt like three. More rain showers came down. Finally, the distorted sound of One Vision started up. Intoxicated people at the back reacted like cavemen and ran downhill towards the noise. The wave of people gathered momentum and bodies like a tsunami until it slammed into me. I was lifted off the ground and carried about ten or fifteen feet forward. My brother grabbed onto my bag strap so I wouldn’t get swept away and lost in the melee.
Finally, the human wave seemed to stop as Freddie Mercury appeared with a crown on his head. (Freddie usually came out with his crown and ermine cape at the end as God Save The Queen played.)
(But with political tensions of The Troubles in Northern Ireland at their height, it was wisely decided not to play it and end the show with We Are The Champions.) Here’s Freddie’s appearance on an Irish news report that I timer-recorded on our old Blaupunkt VHS recorder while we were at the show.
Queen were about to get their first taste of the dark side of the crowd. During Seven Seas of Rhye, Freddie said “Hold it, hold it!” to the rest of Queen. They stopped playing as Freddie pointed into the crowd at a young guy getting crushed. “Are you all right?” Freddie asked. It appeared that he was. Freddie took the opportunity to let the crowd know his displeasure. “We don’t like this,” Freddie said, “you guys are spoiling this concert for the rest of the people!” That got a loud cheer. About time someone tried to impose a little order on the chaos.
It got worse before it got better. Down the front of the stage, several inebriated chaps were using a battering ram to smash through to the backstage area. The hoses that had been installed to cool the crowd in a heatwave were put to use as makeshift water cannon against the intruders. I could see the water sheeting off them down the front (you can see in the photo that their clothes and hair are wet and water is splashing on the ground as they’re running).
There was even a possibly apocryphal story of a passing drunk unplugging the live feed that Queen were recording for their Live Magic album which came out later in 1986 in December. (Or was Slane cut out in disgust by Freddie? That seems more likely.)
One fan even managed to clamber up onto the stage as Freddie was singing and ran right at him. Freddie calmly put his arm around the boy’s shoulders and walked him to the wings where security took care of him.
The local Slane residents insisted on the show ending before dark, so Queen’s lighting effects lost a lot of their power in the fading daylight (just look at the Wembley show at night a week later to see what might have been.) The Olympic-style torches above the stage ignited during Bohemian Rhapsody to a big cheer from the crowd.
During We Are The Champions, the whole crowd was swaying in unison at last as opposed to fighting everything. I found myself standing next to an old Hell’s Angel in a leather jacket. A dude swaying up on someone’s shoulders spilled cider on my head, a baptism in rowdiness at my debut concert. While he did apologise, I went home reeking of someone else’s alcohol. As the show ended, the Hell’s Angel asked me what I thought of the show. I was dumbstruck. “Now there’s a man of few words!” the Hell’s Angel said, “what did you think???” I managed a “great”, I think and we started the long climb up the natural hill of Slane’s auditorium. It had been a long, long day full of surprises, some good, some nasty, but the primary feeling was one of elation to have seen my idols at my first show.
The drama didn’t end there. It’s conservatively estimated that 80,000 people attended Queen’s Slane show. I can tell you that there were at least 100,000 people, if not 120,000 in attendance. This is borne out by the crushing in the crowd and the fact that the exit wasn’t big enough to cope with the numbers trying to pour out through it at the end. My brother and I were forced off to the side by the jostling crowd and got pushed up against this barbed wire fence. We had to climb over it, balance on top of a wall and drop down several feet to the road below to get back to our bus (not easy when your legs are stiff from standing all day.). All of which had to be done in a split-second as another crush was forcing people over the barbed wire fence right on top of us. As a wide-eyed 14-year-old kid, I just went with the flow. Looking back, it’s a miracle I wasn’t seriously injured that day. Today, everything is Health & Safety. In ’86, it was Cheap & Cheerful. You sucked it up and got on with it and nobody sued for damages.
In the days before mobile phones and the internet, there was no way for us to contact home and let them know we were okay. By 10.30pm, my mother was getting frantic with worry and sent my dad out in his car to find us. (I never told my mother the full details of what happened that day as I knew she’d probably never let me out again and would be worried sick if she did.) Sure enough, we met my father at the top of Johnstown Road, he picked us up and we got home. Still buzzing from the concert, I checked the videotape to find out if it had recorded the news broadcast. It had and I still have that recording to this day (probably because it was recorded on an excellent German BASF tape.)
Next day, I woke up still tired but exhilarated. I couldn’t believe I’d seen Queen. During a lull in the Wimbledon tennis final between Boris Becker and Ivan Lendl, I went out on my bike to get the newspapers and see what they’d written about Queen at Slane. I naively thought they’d rave about the concert. The reviews rubbished Queen’s show. The Irish Sunday Independent review had the headline “Rhapsody on a Soggy Saturday.” “Queen pulverized every one of their songs with a heavy, turgid performance,” said another reviewer. I was wondering if they’d watched the same show I had.
Freddie was so enraged by the crowd’s behaviour that he vowed never to play live in Ireland again. That vow would never be put to the test as he was diagnosed with HIV nine months later and died in 1991 of complications from AIDS. Brian May apparently refused to go on for Queen’s Slane encore after being struck by an object thrown from the crowd. He did go on again after being persuaded by his bandmates. Asked about Slane in a 1989 interview, Brian diplomatically said that there was “an element of noisemakers” in the crowd but added that “the Irish crowd is wonderful to play to. It’s the nature of an outdoor gig that it becomes a kind of drinking party.” Brian did play Ireland again in 1992 on his Back to the Light solo tour in the wake of Freddie’s death.
One possible reason for the crowd’s rowdiness at Slane ’86 is that Ireland was in recession at the time and jobs and hope were scarce. It was so bad that the Self Aid concert was organised in May 1986 to help Ireland’s unemployed. It featured U2, The Boomtown Rats and Elvis Costello among others. 30,000 people left Ireland looking for work in 1986, my brother being one of them. He was with me at Slane and, six weeks later, he was gone to America. In the year that followed, he was only home for four months. Luckily, Ireland’s Celtic Tiger boom was just a few years away in the 1990s and my brother was able to stay in Ireland and start his own successful business.
As for me, that boy of few words grew up to become a man of many words and I published my first book, The Vorbing, in October 2015.
The only thing that remains is for Queen + Adam Lambert to do some Irish shows. They’ve performed everywhere except the Emerald Isle. What are you waiting for, guys? This story isn’t over yet.
© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All Rights Reserved.
Going through some Slane ’86 photos online, I somehow located my 14-year-old self in the crowd
Queen+Adam Lambert HAVE announced an Irish date for late 2017 and I’ll be in attendance. The story continues… (to read my review of Queen + Adam Lambert’s 2018 Dublin show, click here.)
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To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.